The beauty, majesty, and timelessness of a primary rainforest are indescribable. It is impossible to capture on film, to describe in words, or to explain to those who have never had the awe-inspiring experience of standing in the heart of a primary rainforest.
Rainforests have evolved over millions of years to turn into the incredibly complex environments they are today. Rainforests represent a store of living and breathing renewable natural resources that for eons, by virtue of their richness in both animal and plant species, have contributed a wealth of resources for the survival and well-being of humankind. These resources have included basic food supplies, clothing, shelter, fuel, spices, industrial raw materials, and medicine for all those who have lived in the majesty of the forest. However, the inner dynamics of a tropical rainforest is an intricate and fragile system. Everything is so interdependent that upsetting one part can lead to unknown damage or even destruction of the whole. Sadly, it has taken only a century of human intervention to destroy what nature designed to last forever.
The scale of human pressures on ecosystems everywhere has increased enormously in the last few decades. Since 1980 the global economy has tripled in size and the world population has increased by 30 percent. Consumption of everything on the planet has risen- at a cost to our ecosystems. In 2001, The World Resources Institute estimated that the demand for rice, wheat, and corn is expected to grow by 40% by 2020, increasing irrigation water demands by 50% or more. They further reported that the demand for wood could double by the year 2050; unfortunately, it is still the tropical forests of the world that supply the bulk of the world's demand for wood.
In 1950, about 15 percent of the Earth's land surface was covered by rainforest. Today, more than half has already gone up in smoke. In fewer than fifty years, more than half of the world's tropical rainforests have fallen victim to fire and the chain saw, and the rate of destruction is still accelerating. Unbelievably, more than 200,000 acres of rainforest are burned every day. That is more than 150 acres lost every minute of every day, and 78 million acres lost every year! More than 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest is already gone, and much more is severely threatened as the destruction continues. It is estimated that the Amazon alone is vanishing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year. If nothing is done to curb this trend, the entire Amazon could well be gone within fifty years.
Massive deforestation brings with it many ugly consequences-air and water pollution, soil erosion, malaria epidemics, the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the eviction and decimation of indigenous Indian tribes, and the loss of biodiversity through extinction of plants and animals. Fewer rainforests mean less rain, less oxygen for us to breathe, and an increased threat from global warming.
But who is really to blame? Consider what we industrialized Americans have done to our own homeland. We converted 90 percent of North America's virgin forests into firewood, shingles, furniture, railroad ties, and paper. Other industrialized countries have done no better. Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, and other tropical countries with rainforests are often branded as "environmental villains" of the world, mainly because of their reported levels of destruction of their rainforests. But despite the levels of deforestation, up to 60 percent of their territory is still covered by natural tropical forests. In fact, today, much of the pressures on their remaining rainforests comes from servicing the needs and markets for wood products in industrialized countries that have already depleted their own natural resources. Industrial countries would not be buying rainforest hardwoods and timber had we not cut down our own trees long ago, nor would poachers in the Amazon jungle be slaughtering jaguar, ocelot, caiman, and otter if we did not provide lucrative markets for their skins in Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo.
Why should the loss of tropical forests be of any concern to us in light of our own poor management of natural resources? The loss of tropical rainforests has a profound and devastating impact on the world because rainforests are so biologically diverse, more so than other ecosystems (e.g., temperate forests) on Earth.
Consider these facts:
- A single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than is found in all of Europe's rivers.
- A 25-acre plot of rainforest in Borneo may contain more than 700 species of trees - a number equal to the total tree diversity of North America.
- A single rainforest reserve in Peru is home to more species of birds than are found in the entire United States.
- One single tree in Peru was found to harbor forty-three different species of ants - a total that approximates the entire number of ant species in the British Isles.
- The number of species of fish in the Amazon exceeds the number found in the entire Atlantic Ocean.
The biodiversity of the tropical rainforest is so immense that less than 1 percent of its millions of species have been studied by scientists for their active constituents and their possible uses. When an acre of topical rainforest is lost, the impact on the number of plant and animal species lost and their possible uses is staggering. Scientists estimate that we are losing more than 137 species of plants and animals every single day because of rainforest deforestation.
Surprisingly, scientists have a better understanding of how many stars there are in the galaxy than they have of how many species there are on Earth. Estimates vary from 2 million to 100 million species, with a best estimate of somewhere near 10 million; only 1.4 million of these species have actually been named. Today, rainforests occupy only 2 percent of the entire Earth's surface and 6 percent of the world's land surface, yet these remaining lush rainforests support over half of our planet's wild plants and trees and one-half of the world's wildlife. Hundreds and thousands of these rainforest species are being extinguished before they have even been identified, much less catalogued and studied. The magnitude of this loss to the world was most poignantly described by Harvard's Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson over a decade ago:
"The worst thing that can happen during the 1980s is not energy depletion, economic collapses, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive us for."
Yet still the destruction continues. If deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate nearly 80 to 90 percent of tropical rainforest ecosystems will be destroyed by the year 2020. This destruction is the main force driving a species extinction rate unmatched in 65 million years.
If Amazonia were a country, it would be the ninth largest in the world. The Amazon rainforest, the world's greatest remaining natural resource, is the most powerful and bioactively diverse natural phenomenon on the planet. It has been described as the "lungs of our planet" because it provides the essential service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide into oxygen. It is estimated that more than 20 percent of Earth's oxygen is produced in this area.
The Amazon covers more than 1.2 billion acres, representing two-fifths of the enormous South American continent, and is found in nine South American countries: Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname. With 2.5 million square miles of rainforest, the Amazon rainforest represents 54 percent of the total rainforests left on Earth.
The life force of the Amazon rainforest is the mighty Amazon River. It starts as a trickle high in the snow-capped Andes Mountains and flows more than 4,000 miles across the South American continent until it enters the Atlantic Ocean at Belem, Brazil, where it is 200 to 300 miles across, depending on the season. Even 1,000 miles inland it is still 7 miles wide. The river is so deep that ocean liners can travel up its length to 2,300 miles inland. The Amazon River flows through the center of the rainforest and is fed by 1,100 tributaries, 17 of which are more than 1,000 miles long. The Amazon is by far the largest watershed and largest river system in the world occupying over 6 million square kilometers. Over two-thirds of all the fresh water found on Earth is in the Amazon Basin's rivers, streams, and tributaries.
With so much water it's not unusual that the main mode of transportation throughout the area is by boat. The smallest and most common boats used today are still made out of hollowed tree trunks, whether they are powered by outboard motors or more often by human-powered paddles. Almost 14,000 miles of Amazon waterway are navigable, and several million miles through swamps and forests are penetrable by canoe. The enormous Amazon River carries massive amounts of silt from runoff from the rainforest floor. Massive amounts of silt deposited at the mouth of the Amazon River has created the largest river island in the world-Marajo Island, which is roughly the size of Switzerland. With this massive freshwater system, it is not unusual that life beneath the water is as abundant and diverse as the surrounding rainforest's plant and animal species. More than 2,000 species of fish have been identified in the Amazon Basin - more species than in the entire Atlantic Ocean.
The Amazon Basin was formed in the Paleozoic period, somewhere between 500 million and 200 million years ago. The extreme age of the region in geologic terms has much to do with the relative infertility of the rainforest soil and the richness and unique diversity of the plant and animal life. There are more fertile areas in the Amazon River's flood plain, where the river deposits richer soil brought from the Andes, which only formed 20 million years ago.
The Amazon rainforest contains the largest collection of living plant and animal species in the world. The diversity of plant species in the Amazon rainforest is the highest on Earth. It is estimated that a single hectare (2.47 acres) of Amazon rainforest contains about 900 tons of living plants, including more than 750 types of trees and 1500 other plants. The Andean mountain range and the Amazon jungle are home to more than half of the world's species of flora and fauna; in fact, one in five of all the birds in the world live in the rainforests of the Amazon. To date, some 438,000 species of plants of economic and social interest have been registered in the region, and many more have yet to be catalogued or even discovered.
Once a vast sea of tropical forest, the Amazon rainforest today is scarred by roads, farms, ranches, and dams. Brazil is gifted with a full third of the world's remaining rainforests; unfortunately, it is also one of the world's great rainforest destroyers, burning or felling more than 2.7 million acres each year. More than 20 percent of rainforest in the Amazon has been razed and is gone forever. This ocean of green, nearly as large as Australia, is the last great rainforest in the known universe and it is being decimated like the others before it. Why? Like other rainforests already lost forever, the land is being cleared for logging timber, large-scale cattle ranching, mining operations, government road building and hydroelectric schemes, military operations, and the subsistence agriculture of peasants and landless settlers. Sadder still, in many places the rainforests are burnt simply to provide charcoal to power industrial plants in the area.
Commercial logging is the single largest cause of rainforest destruction, both directly and indirectly. Other activities destroying the rainforest, including clearing land for grazing animals and subsistence farming. The simple fact is that people are destroying the Amazon rainforest and the rest of the rainforests of the world because "they can't see the forest for the trees."
Logging tropical hardwoods like teak, mahogany, rosewood, and other timber for furniture, building materials, charcoal, and other wood products is big business and big profits. Several species of tropical hardwoods are imported by developed counties, including the United States, just to build coffins that are then buried or burned. The demand, extraction, and consumption of tropical hardwoods has been so massive that some countries that have been traditional exporters of tropical hardwoods are now importing them because they have already exhausted their supply by destroying their native rainforests in slash-and-burn operations. It is anticipated that the Philippines, Malaysia, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Thailand will soon follow, as all these countries will run out of rainforest hardwood timber for export within five years. Japan is the largest importer of tropical woods. Despite recent reductions, Japan's average tropical timber import of 11 million cubic meters annually is still gluttonous. The demand for tropical hardwood timber is damaging to the ecological, biological, and social fabric of tropical lands and is clearly unsustainable for any length of time.
Behind the hardwood logger come others down the same roads built to transport the timber. The cardboard packing and the wood chipboard industries use 15-ton machines that gobble up the rainforest with 8-foot cutting discs that have eight blades revolving 320 times a minute. These machines that cut entire trees into chips half the size of a matchbox can gobble up more than 200 species of trees in mere minutes.
Logging rainforest timber is a large economic source, and in many cases, the main source of revenue for servicing the national debt of these developing countries. Logging profits are real to these countries that must service their debts, but they are fleeting. Governments are selling their assets too cheaply, and once the rainforest is gone, their source of income will also be gone. Sadly, most of the real profits of the timber trade are made not by the developing countries, but by multinational companies and industrialists of the Northern Hemisphere. These huge, profit-driven logging companies pay governments a fraction of the timber's worth for large logging concessions on immense tracts of rainforest land and reap huge profits by harvesting the timber in the most economical manner feasible with little regard to the destruction left in their wake.
Logging concessions in the Amazon are sold for as little as $2 per acre, with logging companies felling timber worth thousands of dollars per acre. Governments are selling their natural resources, hawking for pennies resources that soon will be worth billions of dollars. Some of these government concessions and land deals made with industrialists make the sale of Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets look shrewd. In 1986 a huge industrial timber corporation bought thousands of acres in the Borneo rainforest by giving 2,000 Malaysian dollars to twelve longhouses of local tribes. This sum amounted to the price of two bottles of beer for each member of the community. Since then, this company and others have managed to extract and destroy about a third of the Borneo rainforest - about 6.9 million acres - and the local tribes have been evicted from the area or forced to work for the logging companies at slave wages.
In addition to being logged for exportation, rainforest wood stays in developing countries for fuel wood and charcoal. One single steel plant in Brazil making steel for Japanese cars needs millions of tons of wood each year to produce charcoal that can be used in the manufacture of steel. Then, there is the paper industry.
One pulpwood project in the Brazilian Amazon consists of a Japanese power plant and pulp mill. To set up this single plant operation, 5,600 square miles of Amazon rainforest were burned to the ground and replanted with pulpwood trees. This single manufacturing plant consumes 2,000 tons of surrounding rainforest wood every day to produce 55 megawatts of electricity to run the plant. The plant, which has been in operation since 1978, produces more than 750 tons of pulp for paper every 24 hours, worth approximately $500,000, and has built 2,800 miles of roads through the Amazon rainforest to be used by its 700 vehicles. In addition to this pulp mill, the world's biggest pulp mill is the Aracruz mill in Brazil. Its two units produce 1 million tons of pulp a year, harvesting the rainforest to keep the plant in business and displacing thousands of indigenous tribes. Where does all this pulp go? Aracruz's biggest customers are the United States, Belgium, Great Britain, and Japan. More and more rainforest is destroyed to meet the demands of the developed world's paper industry, which requires a staggering 200 million tons of wood each year simply to make paper. If the present rate continues, it is estimated that the paper industry alone will consume 4 billion tons of wood annually by the year 2020.
Once an area of rainforest has been logged, even if it is given the rare chance to regrow, it can never become what it once was. The intricate ecosystem nature devised is lost forever. Only 1 to 2 percent of light at the top of a rainforest canopy manages to reach the forest floor below. Most times when timber is harvested, trees and other plants that have evolved over centuries to grow in the dark, humid environment below the canopy simply cannot live out in the open, and as a result, the plants and animals (that depend on the plants) of the original forest become extinct Even if only sections of land throughout an area are destroyed, these remnants change drastically. Birds and other animals cannot cross from one remnant of land to another in the canopy, so plants are not pollinated, seeds are not dispersed by the animals, and the plants around the edges are not surrounded by the high jungle humidity they need to grow properly. As a result, the remnants slowly become degraded and die. Rains come and wash away the thin topsoil that was previously protected by the canopy, and this barren, infertile land is vulnerable to erosion. Sometimes the land is replanted in African grasses for cattle operations; other times more virgin rainforest is destroyed for cattle operations because grass planted on recently burned land has a better chance to grow.
As the demand in the Western world for cheap meat increases, more and more rainforests are destroyed to provide grazing land for animals. In Brazil alone, there are an estimated 220 million head of cattle, 20 million goats, 60 million pigs, and 700 million chickens. Most of Central and Latin America's tropical and temperate rainforests have been lost to cattle operations to meet the world demand, and still the cattle operations continue to move southward into the heart of the South American rainforests. To graze one steer in Amazonia takes two full acres. Most of the ranchers in the Amazon operate at a loss, yielding only paper profits purely as tax shelters. Ranchers' fortunes are made only when ranching is supported by government giveaways. A banker or rich landowner in Brazil can slash and burn a huge tract of land in the Amazon rainforest, seed it with grass for cattle, and realize millions of dollars worth of government-subsidized loans, tax credits, and write-offs in return for developing the land. These government development schemes rarely make a profit, as they are actually selling cheap beef to industrialized nations. One single cattle operation in Brazil that was co-owned by British Barclays Bank and one of Brazil's wealthiest families was responsible for the destruction of almost 500,000 acres of virgin rainforest. The cattle operation never made a profit, but government write-offs sheltered huge logging profits earned off of logging other land in the Brazilian rainforest owned by the same investors. These generous tax and credit incentives have created more than 29 million acres of large cattle ranches in the Brazilian Amazon, even though the typical ranch could cover less than half its costs without these subsidies. Even these grazing lands don't last forever. Soon the lack of nutrients in the soil and overgrazing degrade them, and they are abandoned for newly cleared land. In Brazil alone, more than 63,000 square miles of land has reportedly been abandoned in this way.
This type of government-driven destruction of rainforest land is promoted by a common attitude among governments in rainforest regions, an attitude that the forest is an economic resource to be harnessed to aid in the development of their countries. The same attitudes that accompanied the colonization of our own frontier are found today in Brazil and other countries with wild and unharnessed rainforest wilderness. These beliefs are exemplified by one Brazilian official's public statement that "not until all Amazonas is colonized by real Brazilians, not Indians, can we truly say we own it." Were we Americans any different with our own colonization, decimating the North American Indian tribes? Like Brazil, we sent out a call to all the world that America had land for the landless in an effort to increase colonization of our country at the expense of our indigenous Indian tribes. And like the first American colonists, colonization in the rainforest really means subsistence farming.
Subsistence farming has for centuries been a driving force in the loss of rainforest land. And as populations explode in Third-World countries in South America and the Far East, the impact has been profound. By tradition, wildlands and unsettled lands in the rainforest are free to those who clear the forest and till the soil. "Squatter's rights" still prevail, and poor, hungry people show little enthusiasm for arguments about the value of biodiversity or the plight of endangered species when they struggle daily to feed their families. These landless peasants and settlers follow the logging companies down the roads they've built to extract timber into untouched rainforest lands, burning off whatever the logging companies left behind.
The present approach to rainforest cultivation produces wealth for a few, but only for a short time, because farming burned-off tracts of Amazon rainforest seldom works for long. Less than 10 percent of Amazonian soils are suitable for sustained conventional agriculture. However lush they look, rainforests often flourish on such nutrient-poor soils that they are essentially "wet deserts," easier to damage and harder to cultivate than any other soil. Most are exhausted by the time they have produced three or four crops. Many of the thousands of homesteaders who migrated from Brazil's cities to the wilds of the rainforest, responding to the government's call of "land without men for men without land," have already had to abandon their depleted farms and move on, leaving behind fields of baked clay dotted with stagnant pools of polluted water. Experts agree that the path to conservation begins with helping these local residents meet their own daily needs. Because of the infertility of the soil, and the lack of knowledge of sustainable cultivation practices, this type of agriculture strips the soil of nutrients within a few harvests, and the farmers continue to move farther into the rainforest in search of new land. They must be helped and educated to break free of the need to continually clear rainforest in search of fresh, fertile land if the rainforest is to be saved.
Directly and indirectly, the leading threats to rainforest ecosystems are governments and their unbridled, unplanned, and uncoordinated development of natural resources. The 2000-2001 World Resources Report put out by the United Nations reported that governments worldwide spend $700 billion dollars a year supporting and subsidizing environmentally unsound practices in the use of water, agriculture, energy, and transportation. In the Amazon, rainforest timber exports and large-scale development projects go a long way in servicing national debt in many developing countries, which is why governments and international aid-lending institutions like the World Bank subsidize them. In the tropics, governments own or control nearly 80 percent of tropical forests, so these forests stand or fall according to government policy; and in many countries, government policies lie behind the wastage of forest resources. Besides the tax incentives and credit subsidies that guarantee large profits to private investors who convert forests to pastures and farms, governments allow private concessionaires to log the national forests on terms that induce uneconomic or wasteful uses of the public domain. Massive public expenditures on highways, dams, plantations, and agricultural settlements, too often supported by multilateral development lending, convert or destroy large areas of forest for projects of questionable economic worth.
Tropical countries are among the poorest countries on Earth. Brazil alone spends 40 percent of its annual income simply servicing its loans, and the per capita income of Brazil's people is less than $2,000 annually. Sadly, these numbers don't even represent an accurate picture in the Amazon because Brazil is one of the richer countries in South America. These struggling Amazonian countries must also manage the most complex, delicate, and valuable forests remaining on the planet, and the economic and technological resources available to them are limited. They must also endure a dramatic social and economic situation, as well as deeply adverse terms of trade and financial relationships with industrial countries. Under such conditions, the possibility of their reaching sustainable models of development alone is virtually nil.
There is a clear need for industrial countries to sincerely and effectively assist the tropics in a quest for sustainable forest management and development if the remaining rainforests are to be saved. The governments of these developing countries need help in learning how to manage and protect their natural resources for long-term profits, while still managing to service their debts, and they must be given the incentives and tools to do so. Programs to redefine the timber concessions so concessionaires have greater incentives to guard the long-term health of the forest and programs to revive and expand community-based forestry schemes, which ensure more rational use of forests and a better life for the people who live near them, must be developed.
First-World capital must seek out opportunities to partner with organizations that have the technical expertise to guide these programs of sustainable economic development. In addition, programs teaching techniques for sustainable harvesting practices and identifying profitable, yet sustainable, forest products can enable developing countries to improve the standard of living for their people, service national debt, and contribute meaningfully to land use planning and conservation of natural resources.
It is estimated that nearly half of the world's estimated 10 million species of plants, animals, and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter-century due to rainforest deforestation. Edward O. Wilson estimates that we are losing 137 plant and animal species every single day. That's 50,000 species a year! Again, why should we in the United States be concerned about the destruction of distant tropical rainforests? Because rainforest plants are complex chemical storehouses that contain many undiscovered biodynamic compounds with unrealized potential for use in modern medicine. We can gain access to these materials only if we study and conserve the species that contain them.
Rainforests currently provide sources for one-fourth of today's medicines, and 70 percent of the plants found to have anticancer properties are found only in the rainforest. The rainforest and its immense undiscovered biodiversity hold the key to unlocking tomorrow's cures for devastating diseases. How many cures for devastating disease have we already lost?
Two drugs obtained from a rainforest plant known as the Madagascar periwinkle, now extinct in the wild due to deforestation of the Madagascar rainforest, have increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 percent to 80 percent. Think about it: eight out of ten children are now saved, rather than eight of ten children dying from leukemia. How many children have been spared and how many more will continue to be spared because of this single rainforest plant? What if we had failed to discover this one important plant among millions before human activities had led to its extinction? When our remaining rainforests are gone, the rare plants and animals will be lost forever-and so will the possible cures for diseases like cancer they can provide.
No one can challenge the fact that we are still largely dependent on plants for treating our ailments. Almost 90 percent of people in developing countries still rely on traditional medicine, based largely on different species of plants and animals, for their primary health care. In the United States, some 25 percent of prescriptions are filled with drugs whose active ingredients are extracted or derived from plants. By 1980 sales of these plant-based drugs in the United States amounted to some $4.5 billion annually. Worldwide sales of these plant-based drugs were estimated at $40 billion in 1990. Currently 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources from only 90 species of plants. Still more drugs are derived from animals and microorganisms.
More than 25 percent of the active ingredients in today's cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rainforest. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified more than 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells, and 70 percent of these plants are found only in the rainforest. In the thousands of species of rainforest plants that have not been analyzed are many more thousands of unknown plant chemicals, many of which have evolved to protect the plants from diseases. These plant chemicals may well help us in our own ongoing struggle with constantly evolving pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi that are mutating against our mainstream drugs and becoming resistant to them. These pathogens cause serious diseases, including hepatitis, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and HIV, all of which are becoming more difficult to treat. Experts now believe that if there is a cure for cancer and even AIDS, it will probably be found in the rainforest.
In 1983, there were no U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers involved in research programs to discover new drugs or cures from plants. Today, more than 100 pharmaceutical companies, including giants like Merck, Abbott, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Monsanto, Smith-Kline Beecham, as well as several branches of the U.S. government, including the National Cancer Institute, are engaged in plant-based research projects trying to find possible drugs to treat infections, cancer, and AIDS. Most of this research is currently taking place in the rainforest in an industry that is now called "bioprospecting." This new pharmacological industry draws together an unlikely confederacy: plant collectors and anthropologists; ecologists and conservationists; natural product companies and nutritional supplement manufacturers; AIDS and cancer researchers; executives in the world's largest drug companies; and native indigenous shamans. They are part of a radical experiment: to preserve the world's rainforests by showing how much more valuable they are standing than cut down. And it is a race against a clock whose every tick means another acre of charred forest. Yet, it is also a race that pits one explorer against another, for those who score the first big hit in chemical bioprospecting will secure wealth and a piece of scientific immortality.
In November 1991, Merck Pharmaceutical Company announced a landmark agreement to obtain samples of wild plants and animals for drug-screening purposes from Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio); the program is still ongoing today. Spurred by this and other biodiversity prospecting ventures, interest in the commercial value of plant genetic and biochemical resources is burgeoning today. While the Merck-INBio agreement provides a fascinating example of a private partnership that contributes to rural economic development, rainforest conservation, and technology transfer, virtually no precedent exists for national policies and legislation to govern and regulate what amounts to a brand new industry.
Since wealth and technology are as concentrated in most of the North as biodiversity and poverty are in much of the South, the question of equity is particularly hard to answer in ways that satisfy everyone with a stake in the outcome. The interests of bioprospecting corporations are not the same as those of people who live in a biodiversity "hot spot," many of them barely eking out a living. As the search for wild species whose genes can yield new medicines and better crops gathers momentum, these rich habitats also sport more and more bioprospectors. Like the nineteenth-century California gold rush or its present-day counterpart in Brazil, this "gene rush" could wreak havoc on ecosystems and the people living in or near them. Done properly, however, bioprospecting can bolster both economic and conservation goals while underpinning the medical and agricultural advances needed to combat disease and sustain growing populations.
The majority of our current plant-derived drugs were discovered by examining the traditional use of plants by the indigenous people who lived where the plants grew and flourished. History has shown that the situation with the rainforest is no different, and bioprospectors now are working side by side with rainforest tribal shamans and herbal healers to learn the wealth of their plant knowledge and about the many uses of indigenous plants.
After the Amerindians discovered America, about twenty millennia before Columbus, all their clothing, food, medicine, and shelter were derived from the forests. Those millennia gave the Indians time to discover and learn empirically the virtues and vices of the thousands of edible and medicinal species in the rainforest. More than 80 percent of the developed world's diet originated in the rainforest and from this empirical indigenous knowledge of the wealth of edible fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Of the estimated 3,000 edible fruits found in the rainforest, only 200 are cultivated for use today, despite the fact that the Indians used more than 1,500. Many secrets and untold treasures about the medicinal plants used by shamans, healers, and the indigenous people of the rainforest tribes await discovery. Long regarded as hocus-pocus by science, the empirical plant knowledge of the indigenous peoples is now thought by many to be the Amazon's new gold. Their use of the plants provides the bioprospector with the clues necessary to target specific species to research in the race for time before the species are lost to deforestation. More often, the race is defined as being the first pharmaceutical company to patent a new drug utilizing a newly discovered rainforest phytochemical-and, of course, to garner the profits.
Laboratory synthesis of new medicines is increasingly costly and not as fruitful as companies would like. In the words of one major drug company executive, "Scientists may be able to make any molecule they can imagine on a computer, but Mother Nature . . . is an infinitely more ingenious and exciting chemist." Scientists have developed new technologies to assess the chemical makeup of plants, and they realize that using medicinal plants identified by Indians makes research more efficient and less expensive. With these new trends, drug development has actually returned to its roots: traditional medicine. It is now understood by bioprospectors that the tribal peoples of the rainforest represent the key to finding new and useful tropical forest plants. The degree to which these indigenous people understand and are able to use this diversity sustainably is astounding. A single Amazonian tribe of Indians may use more than 200 species of plants for medicinal purposes alone.
Of the 121 pharmaceutical drugs that are plant-derived today, 74 percent were discovered through follow-up research to verify the authenticity of information concerning the medical uses of the plant by indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, to this day, very few rainforest tribes have been subjected to a complete ethnobotanical analysis. Robert Goodland of the World Bank wrote, "Indigenous knowledge is essential for the use, identification and cataloguing of the [tropical] biota. As tribal groups disappear, their knowledge vanishes with them. The preservation of these groups is a significant economic opportunity for the [developing] nation, not a luxury."
Since Amazonian Indians are often the only ones who know both the properties of these plants and how they can best be used, their knowledge is now considered an essential component of all efforts to conserve and develop the rainforest. Since failure to document this lore would represent a tremendous economic and scientific loss to the industrialized world, the bioprospectors are now working side by side with the rainforest tribal shamans and herbal healers to learn the wealth of their plant knowledge. But bioprospecting has a dark side. Indian knowledge that has resisted the pressure of "modernization" is being used by bioprospectors who, like oil companies and loggers destroying the forests, threaten to leave no benefits behind them.
It's a noble idea-the ethnobotanist working with the Indians seeking a cure for cancer or even AIDS, like Sean Connery in the movie Medicine Man. Yet behind this lurks a system that, at its worst, steals the Indian knowledge to benefit CEOs, stockholders, and academic careers and reputations. The real goal of these powerful bioprospectors is to target novel and active phytochemicals for medical applications, synthesize them in a laboratory, and have them patented for subsequent drug manufacture and resulting profits. In this process, many active and beneficial plants have been found in the shaman's medicine chest, only to be discarded when it was found that the active ingredients of the plant numbered too many to be cost effectively synthesized into a patentable drug. It doesn't matter how active or beneficial the plant is or how long the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) process might take to approve the new drug; if the bioprospector can't capitalize on it, the public will rarely hear about a plant's newly discovered benefits. The fact is there is a lot of money at stake. In an article published in Economic Botany, Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale University, and Dr. Michael J. Balick, director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, estimate the minimum number of pharmaceutical drugs potentially remaining to be extracted from the rainforests. It is staggering! They estimate that there are at least 328 new drugs that still await discovery in the rainforest, with a potential value of $3 billion to $4 billion to a private pharmaceutical company and as much as $147 billion to society as a whole.
While the indigenous Indian shamans go about their daily lives caring for the well-being of their tribe, the shaman's rainforest medicines are being tested, synthesized, patented, and submitted for FDA approval in U.S. laboratories thousands of miles away. Soon children with viral infections, adults with herpes, cancer patients, and many others may benefit from new medicines from the Amazon rainforest. But what will the indigenous tribes see of these wonderful new medicines? As corporations rush to patent indigenous medicinal knowledge, the originating indigenous communities receive few, if any, benefits.
The destruction of the rainforest has followed the pattern of seeing natural land and natural world peoples as resources to be used, and seeing wilderness as idle, empty, and unproductive. Destruction of our rainforests is not only causing the extinction of plant and animal species, it is also wiping out indigenous peoples who live in the rainforest. Obviously, rainforests are not idle land, nor are they uninhabited. Indigenous peoples have developed technologies and resource use systems that have allowed them to live on the land, farming, hunting, and gathering in a complex sustainable relationship with the forest. But when rainforests die, so do the indigenous peoples.
In 1500 there were an estimated 6 million to 9 million indigenous people inhabiting the rainforests in Brazil. When Western and European cultures were drawn to Brazil's Amazon in the hopes of finding riches beyond comprehension and artifacts from civilizations that have long since expired with the passage of time, they left behind decimated cultures in their ravenous wake. By 1900 there were only 1 million indigenous people left in Brazil's Amazon. Although the fabled Fountain of Youth was never discovered, many treasures in gold and gems were spirited away by the more successful invaders of the day, and the indigenous inhabitants of the rainforest bore the brunt of these marauding explorers and conquistadors.
Today there are fewer than 250,000 indigenous people of Brazil surviving this catastrophe, and still the destruction continues. These surviving indigenous people still demonstrate the remarkable diversity of the rainforest because they comprise 215 ethnic groups with 170 different languages. Nationwide, they live in 526 territories, which together compose an area of 190 million acres . . . twice the size of California. About 188 million acres of this land is inside the Brazilian Amazon, in the states of Acre, Amapa, Amazonas, Maranhao, Mato Grosso, Para, Rondonia, Roraima, and Tocantins. There may also be 50 or more indigenous groups still living in the depths of the rainforest that have never had contact with the outside world.
Throughout the rainforest, forest-dwelling peoples whose age-old traditions allow them to live in and off the forest without destroying it are losing out to cattle ranching, logging, hydroelectric projects, large-scale farms, mining, and colonization schemes. About half of the original Amazonian tribes have already been completely destroyed. The greatest threat to Brazil's remaining tribal people, most of whom live in the Amazon rainforest, is the invasion of their territory by ranchers, miners, and land speculators and the conflicts that follow. Thousands of peasants, rubber tappers, and indigenous tribes have been killed in Amazonia in the past decade in violent conflicts over forest resources and land.
As their homelands continue to be invaded and destroyed, rainforest people and their cultures are disappearing. When these indigenous peoples are lost forever, gone too will be their empirical knowledge representing centuries of accumulated knowledge of the medicinal value of plant and animal species in the rainforest. Very few tribes have been subjected to a complete ethnobotanical analysis of their plant knowledge, and most medicine men and shamans remaining in the rainforests today are seventy years old or more. When a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world lose thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants. Each time a rainforest medicine man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.
The problem and the solution of the destruction of the rainforest are both economic. Governments need money to service their debts, squatters and settlers need money to feed their families, and companies need to make profits. The simple fact is that the rainforest is being destroyed for the income and profits it yields, however fleeting. Money still makes the world go around . . . even in South America and even in the rainforest. But this also means that if landowners, governments, and those living in the rainforest today were given a viable economic reason not to destroy the rainforest, it could and would be saved. And this viable economic alternative does exist, and it is working today. Many organizations have demonstrated that if the medicinal plants, fruits, nuts, oils, and other resources like rubber, chocolate, and chicle (used to make chewing gums) are harvested sustainably, rainforest land has much more economic value today and more long-term income and profits for the future than if just timber is harvested or burned down for cattle or farming operations. In fact, the latest statistics prove that rainforest land converted to cattle operations yields the landowner $60 per acre; if timber is harvested, the land is worth $400 per acre. However, if medicinal plants, fruits, nuts, rubber, chocolate, and other renewable and sustainable resources are harvested, the land will yield the landowner $2,400 per acre. This value provides an income not only today, but year after year - for generations. These sustainable resources - not the trees - are the true wealth of the rainforest.
This is no longer a theory. It is a fact, and it is being implemented today. Just as important, to wild-harvest the wealth of sustainable rainforest resources effectively, local people and indigenous tribes must be employed. Today entire communities and tribes earn five to ten times more money in wild-harvesting medicinal plants, fruits, nuts, and oils than they can earn by chopping down the forest for subsistence crops. This much-needed income source creates the awareness and economic incentive for this population in the rainforest to protect and preserve the forests for long-term profits for themselves and their children and is an important solution in saving the rainforest from destruction.
When the timber is harvested for short-term gain and profits, the medicinal plants, nuts, oils, and other important sustainable resources that thrive in this delicate ecosystem are destroyed. The real solution to saving the rainforest is to make its inhabitants see the forest and the trees by creating a consumer demand and consumer markets for these sustainable rainforest products . . . markets that are larger and louder than today's tropical timber market . . . markets that will put as much money in their pockets and government coffers as the timber companies do . . . markets that will give them the economic incentive to protect their sustainable resources for long-term profits, rather than short-term gain.
This is the only solution that makes a real impact, and it can make a real difference. Each and every person in the United States can take a part in this solution by helping to create this consumer market and demand for sustainable rainforest products. By purchasing renewable and sustainable rainforest products and resources and demanding sustainable harvesting of these resources using local communities and indigenous tribes of the rainforests, we all can be part of the solution, and the rainforests of the world and their people can be saved.